Texas lake is site of latest skirmish over drilling expansion

Lake Somerville

By: Sergio Chapa – Houston Chronicle – Drilling rig towers may soon break the horizon of Lake Somerville, a popular reservoir 90 miles northwest of Houston that has drawn outdoor enthusiasts to boat, fish, and swim for more than five decades.

The Bureau of Land Management hopes to lease some 384 acres for drilling and hydraulic fracturing along the southern rim of Lake Somerville.

The lease offerings are a small piece of President Donald Trump’s efforts to expand drilling on federal lands, off the nation’s coasts, and along Alaska’s Arctic coastline. The administration has called for opening 90 percent of U.S. waters for drilling, even as the world faced a glut of crude. The efforts, meanwhile, have run into opposition from lawmakers, federal judges who have canceled some leases and environmental groups trying to protect areas like Lake Somerville.

Created in 1967 by damming the Yegua Creek, the 11,160-acre reservoir straddles Burleson, Lee, and Washington counties. Thousands of people each year visit the area, which includes eight public parks, 11 boat ramps, and several private campgrounds and marinas.

But the lake also is located on the eastern end of the Eagle Ford Shale and Austin Chalk, two geologic formations rich in oil and gas deposits that have attracted drillers to the area for decades. The Land Management Bureau’s six proposed leases would allow horizontal drilling and fracking thousands of feet under the reservoir and Yegua Creek Park in Washington County and a part of Lake Somerville State Park in Lee County.

Environmentalists oppose the leases citing safety and pollution concerns. Tucson, Ariz., environmental group Center for Biological Diversity has criticized the Trump administration for reducing the time during which the public can comment on the Lake Somerville leases to 10 days from the usual 30.

With starting bids as low as $2 per acre, the leases are scheduled to be offered for sale Aug. 26.

“They’re poorly publicized, they’re short-cutting public notice, they’re short-cutting environmental review and there are some real risks here,” said Taylor McKinnon, the center’s senior public lands campaigner. “It seems like the Bureau of Land Management is putting out leases and hoping that everyone is paying attention in the middle of the pandemic.”

Biological Diversity leaders say the lake and surrounding area are under the flight path for the endangered whooping crane, a 6-foot-tall bird that breeds in Canada and spends winters along the Texas Gulf Coast near Corpus Christi. Experts fear that drilling could prevent the birds from resting in the area.

The organization also plans to argue that vibrations from drilling and underground explosions from fracking could harm the integrity of the dam and bring earthquakes to the region.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that built the Lake Somerville dam, requires that drilling taking place more than 3,000 feet, or just slightly more than a half-mile, from the dam. The nearest proposed lease in the Bureau of Land Management’s new sale is more than double that distance.

An earthquake has never hit the Lake Somerville area, U.S. Geological Survey data shows.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages Lake Somerville State Park, said it was not asked for input about the leases and was not immediately aware of the negative effects facing the park.

Federal lands make up less than 2 percent of the state’s 171.8 million acres of land. In Texas at the beginning of 2019, the Bureau of Land Management had 582 oil and gas leases on 346,000 acres.

Most of those federal leases are inside four national forests in East Texas and two national grasslands in North Texas. Others are scattered around and under reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, such as Choke Canyon Reservoir south of San Antonio, Lake Corpus Christi, and Falcon Lake, along the Rio Grande south of Laredo.

With the proposed leases for Lake Somerville, the bureau had hoped to offer a 71-acre oil lease along the Hickory Creek arm of Lake Lewisville near Dallas. The bureau, however, withdrew the proposed lease months after officials with the Upper Trinity Regional Water District raised concerns that drilling could pollute drinking water for 27 communities in Denton and Collin counties.

The Brazos River Authority, which stores water in Lake Somerville for drinking, industrial, agricultural, and mining uses, is neutral regarding the new oil leases.

“Any oil and gas drilling in the area would have to meet the very stringent standards set by the Bureau of Land Management,” Brazos River Authority spokeswoman Judi Pierce said.

Oil and gas wells drilled on the proposed leases at Lake Somerville would require drilling permits from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state.

Adams Resources, a Houston oil company founded in 1947 by K.S. “Bud” Adams, the late owner of the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans, drilled dozens of horizontal wells around and under the lake over the decades, Railroad Commission records show.

In a January 2018 sale, the Bureau of Land Management sold six parcels around the lake with a combined 1,408 acres of oil leases to private mineral leaseholder Philip L. White and Corpus Christi oil company Magnum Producing for roughly $170,300.

Houston-based Magnolia Oil & Gas, Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy, and Dallas-based WCS Oil & Gas are among the biggest horizontal drillers around the lake today, records show.

The industry points to the record of drilling in the area and criticizes efforts to prevent new operations.

“It’s frustrating to see an Arizona-based organization like the Center for Biological Diversity step in to try to regulate Texas affairs,” said Elizabeth Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the industry-funded group Texans For Natural Gas. “There has been absolutely no evidence that any of the existing oil and gas activity around the lakes has presented a threat to the groundwater or increased seismic activity, and to claim that new activity would do so is a baseless accusation.”

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